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Indians in America: The Difficulty of Defining Ourselves

March 2007
Indians in America: The Difficulty of Defining Ourselves

An incredible microcosm of diversity resides within the broad descriptive of "Indian" that we commonly use in the U.S. to describe those who share common roots in the region of India. While functional in casual conversation, "Indian" is woefully inadequate in anything that is a bit more nuanced or formal.

Publications such as ours, academicians, organizations, and agencies often wrangle with and flip flop from various different terms to describe this dynamic group that often morphs from "Indian" to "Indian American" to "South Asian." To talk intelligibly and effectively about this group, it helps to be aware of the subtleties and sensibilities involved.

Fervent Indian nationalists, for example, absolutely detest "South Asian" – a term that is increasingly finding favor in academia and the media. While one may differ as to the reasons why, the detractors of this descriptive do have a point. "South Asian" comes across as a bland, bureaucratic term that is least evocative. It doesn't create any word pictures. Yet, it tends to be subjective rather than definitive. Officially, not everyone is in sync about the nations that the term is meant to describe. Worse, often enough, "South Asian" is used due to a lazy copout or as a matter of political correctness, even when the intended context is the Indian diaspora.

On the flip side, those of a nationalistic bent who uniformly object to the use of "South Asian" seem to be stuck in a bygone era. In a "flat" world as described by Thomas Friedman, the idea of nationalism (as opposed to pride in one's heritage) is increasingly quaint and even counterproductive. While that certainly applies to Indians in India, it applies that much more to Indian immigrants in the U.S.

In an American context, "South Asian" is a term that is certainly useful and needed. Many things from the performing arts, entertainment and language to clothing and cuisine do bind us together as a single demographic group. Moreover, Universities are more prone to get funding and resources to study a region with several countries, than they are to study a single one. To uniformly object to the term "South Asian" simply on nationalistic sentiments is to deny these realities. Using the term in its proper context does not by any means suggest that this is a unified, homogenous group in all aspects; and that there are no internal differences, competition and conflicts amongst the parts.

Even within the context of the specific Indian diaspora in the U.S., there is a wide spectrum of loosely defined groups that are best described by colloquial abbreviations such as FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat) and ABCDs (American Born Confused/Confident Desi). It is this spectrum that requires and is served by the various above mentioned descriptives. The technically correct term (and the one that is used by the U.S. Census Bureau) to describe us as a group is "Asian Indian". While it is the least ambiguous, it is also the least prevalent in popular usage amongst us – perhaps because it fails to establish an American context. If there are "African Americans" and "Irish Americans" then it follows "Indian Americans" would seem most appropriate. Indeed it is the most popular moniker used to describe the Indian diaspora in the U.S.

Popular as it is, even "Indian American" does not come without challenges. Compared to clarity of "Asian Indians", "Indian American" is liable to be confused in the mainstream with "American Indian," the Native American. Additionally, there are many transient H1B workers and students who do not fully embrace that label, as they don't see themselves as hyphenated Americans, but rather as Indians who are only currently residing here.

And then there is desi! On the con side is the fact that it has ingrained itself in popular usage with a misspelling. Deshi (literally, "of the country") would have been more phonetically representative. Being a vernacular word, its most functional downside is that it is not readily accessible to non-Indian English speakers. Moreover, within the traditional context, desi was often used describe rural and simple folks as opposed to the urban sophisticate.

On the plus side, desi is easy on the ear. No wonder it is the one that is most favored in pop "desi" culture in the U.S. Plus, it is quite versatile. It can be an effective colloquial alternative to "Indian", "Indian American" and even "South Asian".

NRI (Non Resident Indian) and PIO (People of Indian Origin) are specific to context of India itself. While many of us may describe ourselves as Indian Americans, those in India talk of us as NRIs. PIOs are yet different from NRIs, considering they are typically those who migrated to far off lands over a couple of generations ago, such as Fijians and Guyanese of Indian origins.

To think that as an Indian American magazine we have perhaps something of interest for the whole ensemble of groups described above is humbling and energizing at the same time. It's a different thing that we just might have to hire a full time "diaspora editor"!

--Parthiv. N. Parekh

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